Coronavirus: Everything changes but God

By Jennifer Jennings
Student, Gardner Webb Divinity School

In January, my new year’s resolution was to write in my journal three things that I was grateful for every day for the year. By April, I was feeling a little resentful of that resolution. After all, what could I be grateful for when our world had changed so drastically in such a short period of time?

In May my parents and I were going to celebrate the completion of my Masters of Arts in English, which marks the completion of the first half of my dual degree program at Gardner-Webb Divinity School; the completion of my parents’ Doctorate of Ministry degrees from McAfee School of Theology; and my parents’ long awaited ordination.

But May is almost over, and the only exciting thing we’ve done is watch Netflix. In addition to the postponement of these big “milestone” moments, I’m missing the little things that made my days feel full.

  • I miss the community I have found at Gardner-Webb, the fellowship of friends and colleagues who add wonderful, unique perspectives to our class discussions and who enrich my life with their caring, compassionate spirits.
  • I miss the peers with whom I ate lunch every Tuesday; eating sandwiches over FaceTime isn’t quite the same.
  • I miss spending time talking to my professors, even if it’s just passing by them in the hallway or bumping into them in the student lounge.
  • I really miss the connection I feel with my professors and my peers when we’re able to have class and worship together in person.
  •  I miss the hugs I used to get every Sunday at church and the opportunity to volunteer in the nursery or with the youth group.

It’s easy to think about all the things that we feel are lost, the things that we haven’t gotten to do since we’ve been in quarantine. It’s also right and good to lament those losses, to feel the pain of things we’ve hoped for being postponed or canceled.

But then I open up my gratitude journal, as I’ve done every morning since the start of 2020, and I’m forced to come up with three things that I’m grateful for.

What do I say, when I’m not feeling grateful for much of anything? I’ve discovered what I miss the most is also that for which I’m most grateful.

  • I’m grateful that I have a divinity school that affirms my call to ministry in the way that Gardner-Webb does.
  • I’m grateful for professors who have gone out of their way to empower me, mentor me, and care for me.
  • I’m grateful for a community of peers who have become like family to me.
  • I’m grateful that I can continue my education, even if it means taking Introduction to Greek online this summer. And the more I think about it, the more my gratitude list grows.

As ministers, I think we’re all at a loss on how to proceed. We want to care for our congregations, but it’s hard when we literally can’t be there for our congregation. We want to have meaningful worship, but it’s hard when the pews are empty.

We want to create a sense of community, but it’s hard when the Zoom attendance dwindles as people get tired of meeting online.

How do we be the church when we can’t be in a church? As I think about this conundrum, I think about the Israelites in the Old Testament, exiled from their homeland and from their center of worship. Like the Israelites in the time of the prophets, the Christian church today is experiencing its own diaspora, and when we all gather together again for worship, we most certainly won’t be the same.

It’s in moments like these that I often take comfort in literature, particularly in poetry. Now more than ever I keep coming back to the poem by Emily Dickinson, “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church.” Dickinson was notoriously agoraphobic, so she practiced social distancing even when there wasn’t a stay-at-home order in place.

In this particular poem, Dickinson defends her right to not go to church, telling her audience that she can worship just as well in her backyard with birds for a choir and her orchard for a sanctuary.

In a time when keeping the Sabbath by going to church is impossible, I have clung to Dickinson’s reminder that just because we have left the church building doesn’t mean that God has left us. And that’s another thing I’ve added to my gratitude journal. 

Jennifer Jennings is a third-year student at Gardner-Webb Divinity School where she is earning her Masters of Arts in English and her Masters of Divinity. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Greenwood, SC, and a recipient of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina Leadership Scholarship and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Global Leadership Scholarship.